Matisse collected textiles throughout his life and had generations of weavers in his family. He wanted his work to be decorative and for it to redefine the ‘decorative’ as a positive phenomenon. Painting women and their domestic interiors in a radical way provided him with just the opportunity to explore and expound this.
Surprisingly, loose blue textile-inspired patterns dominate Matisse’s rich painting despite it being called Harmony in Red. They are expressive and organic, mirroring the rising shapes of the fruit bowl and its pot plant. It is as though they are growing out of the floor and claiming the table and walls. These patterns are wild and joyful, suggestive of potential creativity and spirit within the house. The trees framed to the left of the painting appear contained and groomed in comparison.
Despite the overall emphasis on pattern, the woman’s clothes are intriguingly plain. Her blue top compliments but in no way detracts from the blue designs. The angle of her bent head and stooped body leads the eye away from her and towards the patterns at the painting’s centre. She is very much a part of the still life and does not demand a stronger presence. Could she be a maid, or a careful mistress of the house?
In tension with the interior’s patterned promise of creativity, this subdued image of the woman could suggest that her housework – almost literally – consumes her. On the other hand, this blue harmony between her and her surroundings suggests she is at one with her home. In this way, Matisse is keen for us to see that decorative art can have a story and a weight to it. Like all genres of great artistic masterpieces, it shows you a tale just as much as it keeps you asking questions.
Matisse has been clever with this painting. It is heavily ornamented and yet not detailed, so verges towards the abstract. The table merges with the wall, the fruit seem like an extension of the random patterning and the chair is definitely missing a leg. Is it a window or a painting that occupies the left-hand side of the wall? The overall flatness and diminished perspective makes this a difficult question to answer. Pattern, colour and line come first.
The decorative is given a mind of its own; it is not about conforming, but about creativity, expression and the joy in pure colour and design. And let us not forget, the painting cries, that women have a positive – if often overlooked – place within the decorative and textiles businesses.